Street Life: What did you get for Christmas?

According to Woolworth’s archive, clockwork train sets costing from 7 shillings (35p) were the top present for boys in 1951. The same year, tea sets were the most popular present for girls. They came in plastic, pottery or bone china, and ranged in price from half a crown (12 and a half pence) to 5s (25p).

Despite the re-appearance of toys in shops, to make Christmas special, a certain amount of wartime ‘make do and mend’ was still being employed. Anyone handy with a fret saw or paint brush was in demand, as were ladies who could dress dolls, make soft toys or doll’s house furniture from odds and ends.One year Father Christmas brought me a small chipboard kitchen dresser, probably made by someone my dad knew. I loved it, despite its ghastly shade of pink (war surplus paint perhaps?). The painted tin tea set from my grandparents sat on the open shelves, while jigsaws and games could be stored in the bottom cupboard.

Presents tended to be gender specific in those days. They were a not so subtle indication of the futures our parents envisaged for us. Few boys who got chemistry sets actually became scientists. However, most girls who received toy domestic equipment were likely to become only too familiar with the standard versions later in life.

Over the years, I received sewing and baking sets, mangle with wooden rollers, miniature brush and dustpan, not to mention baby dolls.

By the middle of the decade, toys influenced by cinema, comics and later by television, were what children requested. At different times, a Davy Crocket hat or Dan Dare outfit was a must. But perhaps the most surprising TV inspired favourite was a metal Muffin the Mule puppet.

The concept of merchandising had taken root, even if the word was unknown back then. Animated films meant shops were full of Wade’s Disney Hat Box characters, and clockwork Cinderellas who waltzed endlessly with Prince Charming. I had a Cinderella watch with pink strap, which came in a clear plastic (glass) slipper.Whatever the current craze, it was sure to appear on most Christmas lists. The ones I remember best were yo-yos, hula hoops and roller skates. Maybe it was because I was shy, but it mattered very much that my present of desire was exactly ‘right’.

Nothing but a Lumar 99 yo-yo would do. Don’t ask me the reason, but hula hoops had to be smooth plastic to have any credibility. Christmas morning, mine had the dreaded ridges, so any pretensions to be one of the ‘in crowd’ were definitely out.

During the roller skating craze, everybody except me was whizzing about on rubber tyred wheels. It was either those naked metal wheels, or a complete lack of balance, but I never did master the art of roller skating.

Unless it snowed, Christmas holidays were spent inside by the fire. Even if they were ignored the rest of the year, stencil and John Bull printing sets, blow football, Mr Potato Head, and Plasticine with little moulds like inverted butter stamps, came into their own.A compendium of games was up market, but sets of draughts, snakes and ladders, Ludo or even tiddly-winks were not to be sniffed at. Later in the decade, board games like Monopoly and Cluedo came along, but they were expensive, so stockings were more likely to contain a pack of cards.

To make them more attractive as presents, manufacturers often used characters from popular fiction in their games of Old Maid, Donkey or Happy Families. My favourite was a set of Snap cards with characters from the Rupert Bear comic strip.

Christmas annuals containing topical stories, optical illusions, ideas for things to make and puzzles of every kind, could be bought at newsagents. However annuals of the comics we read every week were probably favourite. Someone usually gave me the Beano with Lord Snooty, Keyhole Kate and Pansy Potter, as well as so much more that I never tired of re-reading them.I invariably got one of the things specified on that list (or lists) I sent up the chimney. My parents would have been astounded to learn I felt the best bit of Christmas morning was opening my stocking. I loved those catch penny items such as chalks, crayons, puzzles, books and chocolate money, sold as stocking fillers.

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Street Life: It Pays to Advertise

The fifties was the era when advertising came to cinemas and right into our living rooms, with the sole purpose of charming money from our pockets.

From 1953, Pearl and Dean became synonymous with picture going. The novelty of seeing familiar names from our local high streets, superimposed on stylish footage, entranced unsophisticated audiences.

At home, commercials were the price we had to pay for the popular music not available on BBC. Radio Luxembourg broadcast on medium wave where reception was patchy. But somehow, the Ovaltiney’s and Horace Bachelor with his ‘Pools’ Infra-draw method, managed to penetrate the static when the music couldn’t.British advertising’s greatest leap forward came in 1956 with the inception of ITV. Not having the ‘technology’ to receive Granada at first, my sister and I were late joining the advert junkies.

Until the novelty wore off, we begged to be allowed to stay up for the next commercial break. Our family didn’t use Pepsodent toothpaste, nor did we have a car, but we happily sang along with the jingles ‘you’ll wonder where the yellow went’ and the ‘Esso sign means happy motoring’.You could learn a lot from adverts. For instance, how to fortify the over forties, and that Turkish Delight is full of eastern promise. Before commercials, who knew Murray mints were the ‘too good to hurry mints’, or that everyone ought to ‘go to work on an egg’.The early 20th century circulation wars between newspapers were responsible for an idea that agencies pinched in the fifties. The free gift phenomenon produced such promotions as Daz roses. Strange as it sounds, those free gifts were an unintentional perk of my father’s job as manager of a GPO canteen. Manufacturers invariably included the equivalent quantity of the current free gift with bulk orders. Initially, the canteen ladies and our neighbours welcomed the unlikely coloured, plastic roses, but soon it became impossible to give the damn things away.

My favourite free gift was a metal waste paper bin adorned with ‘cave paintings‘. For over 60 years, I kept one as a souvenir from the dozens dad brought home.

The nation’s letter boxes became the battle ground in the fifties Soap powder wars.  It seemed that every day a ‘2d off’ coupon for Surf, Omo or Fairy Snow landed on the door mat. Sometimes you would come home to find a sample sized detergent packet, plus ‘money off next purchase coupon’, left on the door step.The trend toward pre-packaged goods was used as an advertising opportunity by manufacturers. The backs of packets soon featured prize winning competitions where the ‘decider’ was a slogan. It didn’t matter that the winner failed to set the advertising world alight, because dedicated sloganeers had already bought the product in order to enter.

Breakfast cereals exploited the pester power of kids by incorporating cut-out models in the packaging. Later, collecting plastic figures from cereal packets became a national obsession. A plastic nuclear submarine which ran on baking powder was one of the most popular Kelloggs ‘giveaways’.Then there were the ‘send away for’ offers. My husband has never got over the half crown (twelve and a half pence) he paid out for one that took six months to arrive. The correctly addressed package containing the, elastic powered, swamp buggy, had toured two continents before reaching Blackpool, only to break almost immediately.

Packet token collecting was not confined to kids. Many a Black and Greens (the family tea) packet top was exchanged for china tea sets or similar. When the cost of a postal order with its ‘poundage’ charge, plus p&p, was taken into account, the items would probably cost less from a department store.

In the great outdoors, colour changing electric signs, flashing out their advertising message, had returned after six years of blackout. And sometimes we were lucky enough to spot an aeroplane trailing a banner across the skies. Men down on their luck had the opportunity of earning a few shillings by walking the streets carrying ‘sandwich boards’ bearing adverts.

Advertising hoardings varying in size from the enormous to small newsagents’ boards, were a common sight around the streets. A welcome splash of colour in the drabness was provided by the enamelled tin shop signs, put there to attract customers and maintain brand awareness.Travelling by train, my sister and I always looked out for a clever amalgamation of shop sign and billboard. It was a couple of workmen (up to twice life size) carrying a plank advertising Hall’s distemper (paint), as they apparently strolled across a field.

Speaking personally, today’s adverts don’t have the charm of the ones featuring Joe, ‘the Esso Blee dooler’, or the Hoover which ‘beats as it sweeps, as it cleans’.

 

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Street Life: Proper Poorly

It’s a long time since I heard anyone refer to powks, gathers, carbuncles or a glide. That’s how we talked about a stye, skin blemish, infected boil or squint (strabismus) before we had TV medical programmes to educate us.

And what about chin cough? The popular myth is that you caught it from sitting on cold stone steps. In real life, a proportion of the 30 people buried at St. Patricks Collyhurst, on New Years day 1857, died of it. Today we call it whooping cough.Until mass vaccination all but eradicated whooping cough, diphtheria and scarlet fever, their spectres remained ever present, especially in poorer areas.

In 1869, it was an epidemic of scarlet fever which prompted Medical Officer John Leigh to demand more isolation facilities in Manchester. However it was smallpox which filled most of the 96 beds at the newly opened Barnes House of Recovery and Convalescent Home for Fever patients in 1871. There were workhouse paupers amongst the sufferers, but it was thought necessary to keep their presence secret from the general public.

Twenty years later, the House of Recovery had been enlarged and renamed Monsall Fever Hospital. By then, 80 per cent of patients were under fifteen. Unless a patient was on the ‘critical list’, visiting hours were infrequent and strictly regulated. Children who spent months convalescing at Monsall, must have felt totally abandoned.In the fifties, the belief was that, sooner or later, every child would contract mumps, chicken pox and measles. To get it over with quickly, we were sent to play at the homes of contagious friends.

Bed was the place to be poorly, and if the illness was considered serious, a paraffin stove might be used to warm a freezing bedroom. Acquaintances say they remember hours spent staring at the reflection of the perforated pattern cast on the ceiling by the heater. Others recall a soothing drink made by stirring a spoonful of blackcurrant jam into hot water.Throughout my childhood, TB and polio were the demon diseases. When I was about 9, there was a polio scare. Banner headlines exhorted parents not to allow children near open water. The previous afternoon, my friend Anne and I had been up to our welly tops in the Moston Brook, trying to build a dam. We kept the escapade from our parents, but visions of ‘iron lungs’ and metal leg callipers haunted our thoughts.Later, a polio vaccine became available. Subsequently it would be administered as syrup or on a sugar lump, but for us it was the dreaded ‘prick’, as injections were then commonly known.

My sister went through the whole spectrum of illness, while tonsillitis was my speciality. Our generation’s tonsils were the first to benefit from the miracle drug, penicillin. I had many a spoonful of thick pink liquid that was supposed to taste like strawberries. It didn’t, and the red penicillin sweets, sucked between doses of medicine, reminded me of barley sugars (horrible).Eventually my tonsils burst, and had to be removed at Booth Hall. Two days in hospital was followed by a fortnight off school to convalesce.

Adults seem to think coughs and colds were caught because children simply wouldn’t ‘do as they were told’. Going outside after having a bath or with wet hair, or even walking about the house with nothing on your feet, meant you were asking to be ill. I suspect old remedies like having a sock full of hot onion wrapped around the throat was supposed to remind us to ‘think on’ next time.Although complaints from the past seem to be re-surfacing, I don’t hear anyone mentioning chilblains these days. Girls at my school were repeatedly warned not to stand against the cloakroom radiators as it would only increase the agony. And as yet, I haven’t spotted a ring worm sufferer with a shaven head adorned with Gentian Violet. And when did they stop painting it on throats?

When playing out, a ‘scrawp’ (graze) from a tumble would likely be ignored. But in pre-antibiotic days, it could easily become septic and cause ‘blood poisoning’. A wound that looked nasty would be poulticed first of all, but if that failed, the doctor would be consulted. On two different occasions, I had to have wounds dressed daily by a graduate of the Spanish Inquisition school of torture.

Being poorly in the fifties was no joke, but it was certainly character building.

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